Monday, June 13, 2011

Good Morning, Cambodia

(Wrote this three days ago, finally got it posted. No wifi at the hostel in Laos. Sorry for the lack of pictures; I'll try to fix that later)

Hello from Siem Reap!

Things got off to an eventful start when I woke up the morning of the 2nd with a stomach bug. There was no way I was going to be able to drag myself to the airport in that state, much less make it through security without puking on some poor TSA agent’s shoes, but luckily Emirates was able to put me on the next day’s flight without too exorbitant a change fee.

So on the morning of the 3rd I took a SuperShuttle out to JFK, then flew the roughly 22 hours to Singapore via Dubai. Turns out the trip to Asia is far less grueling when you’ve only got one stopover instead of five. (Thank you, last year’s CLS trip planners.) It certainly also doesn’t hurt that Emirates has a fantastic movie selection, though somehow on both legs I ended up next to men who couldn’t seem to keep their elbows on their side of the armrest.

Singapore was brief, and stormy. I arrived in the evening, had breakfast, and headed back to the airport to fly to Phnom Penh. Brief moment of panic when, because of the rains, all of the cab companies were fully booked, but E-Ching’s maid Maria managed to hail one off the street for me and I made it on time.

Next up was Phnom Penh. Frankly I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Cambodia going in. I was mainly there on the recommendation of friends and because when Borders was going out of business I found a Laos/Cambodia guidebook for cheap. It’s not a place you hear about much, or would generally thing to visit, probably largely given its fairly recent and entirely horrific political history. The Khmer Rouge were officially in power from 1975 until the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and installed a government headed by Hun Sen, who’s still in charge 30 years later. But the civil war went on until Pol Pot finally died in 1998. It’s only since then that things have been relatively stable, if totalitarian. So its not surprising that Cambodia isn’t on the standard tourist route through Southeast Asia.

As it turns out, Cambodia is lovely. Phnom Penh was everything I’d hoped Bangkok would be – pleasant, walkable, friendly. Cambodians smile a lot, and the tuk-tuk drivers and trinket sellers will actually leave you alone after a no or two, unlike in a lot of other tourist-dependent economies. Phnom Penh actually felt more like Java than anywhere else I’ve been, if Java had more baguettes and monks and smelled like incense. Like Java, I took my life in my hands every time I tried to cross the street – good thing I learned the Indo way of doing it last summer in Malang (look the motorbike drivers in the eye, pray they go around you) or I’d still be standing on the corner by the hostel trying to get off the block. My hostel was a little place above an Irish pub, across the street from the national museum. For $14/night I got my own room and air conditioning. The first night I didn’t have the energy to do much but go find dinner. One of the first things I saw walking down the road by the river on Monday morning was half a discarded mangosteen husk – a good sign that I was going to like this country. On my way to a baguette breakfast I stumbled across a street market, and bargained my way into half a kilo of mangosteens for probably twice what they were worth but still very little. I wandered the main Central Market, then over to Wat Phnom, the temple in the center of the city. From there to lunch at Romdeng, an NGO that gives job training to street kids, where I ordered a dish of three deep-fried tarantulas with a lovely lemon pepper dipping sauce. Yes, I did just write ‘deep-fried tarantulas’. They were actually pretty good, though most of the flavor came from the spices. I started with the legs, since even though they were a little hairy, you didn’t have to think about what’s inside. The front end wasn’t bad either, though the fangs were definitely still attached. It was the back end that weirded me out, filled with stuff whose taste, color, and texture reminded me of the barbecue sauce left in the crevices of ribs after they’ve been cooked and before you slather a fresh layer on to eat them. Still good, but a bit of a mental hurdle. And if you ever come across a bag of Kampot peppercorns, do yourself a favor and buy some – that dipping sauce was fantastic.

The afternoon, once I’d had my siesta, was spent at the Royal Palace, a big Thai-style temple complex. Near the end I got caught in a downpour, which frankly was a relief after the humid heat of the day.

Next morning I caught the National Museum before taking a minibus up to Siem Reap. The five-hour drive north was fascinating, if rather longer than the ticket seller had told me. We went through the plains of central Indochina, all rice paddies and stilt houses and palm trees. More than once we had to stop while a cow or a water buffalo crossed the road. It’s not for the faint of stomach – contrary to my guidebook, the roads aren’t paved quite the whole way – but still a good way to see a bit of the countryside. By the time we got to Siem Reap it was pouring, and the roads looked like rivers. My hotel, Mandalay Inn, was run by a Burmese family, and the Burmese chicken curry I had that night in the hotel restaurant was pretty spectacular.

Apparently my Western stomach is so sensitive that just talking about street food is enough to make me sick, as I woke up the next morning a little under the weather. (Welcome to Southeast Asia!) I refuse to blame the hotel curry or the mangosteens from the market, on the ground that they were far to delicious to have any ill effects. Given that I was already a little off, I caved and bought a baguette sandwich from a cart for breakfast, which I ate on the hotel patio with a diet Coke. It’s amazing how good an ice-cold Coke can taste when it’s 8am and already hot as Hades, and you’re eating questionable street food. I have it on good (Mas Jake) authority that a can of Coke will smooth over many sins of questionably-sourced meals. I also now have good reason to believe that authority is wrong.

That day I headed out to the Angkor Wat temple complex, along with two other backpackers from the hotel and a guide to show us around. The temples are about 15 minutes by tuk-tuk out of town. Angkor Wat itself is the most famous, but the site covers all of 60 square miles. It’s currently the low season, so there’s far fewer tourists than at other, cooler, drier times of year, but there were still plenty of other people around. Angkor Wat is pretty impressive itself – 900 years old, covered in carvings of battles and scenes from the Vedas, there’s good reason they put it on the Cambodian flag. But I liked the smaller temples better. Ta Prohm, where they filmed Tomb Raider a few years back, is still half-collapsed and surrounded by jungle, with trees and vines growing out of the walls and through the roof. The best was Bayon. It started raining as soon as we got there, so the rest of the tourists cleared out and we got the place mostly to ourselves. 800-year-old stone temples, as it turns out, leak pretty badly in a good downpour. Bayon has 54 towers, each with four Buddha faces carved in them, facing the four directions. Walking up to Bayon, it looks like any other temple, with some towers and carved walls, and then as you get closer you realize that each of those towers is smiling at you. It’s incredibly serene, especially with the last of a cool rain coming down and nobody else around. Almost enough to make a Buddhist out of me.

By the time we got back to the hotel I was absolutely wiped, so I had the last of the mangosteens for dinner and crashed early. The next morning I woke up feeling like crap. My mystery-meat baguette come back to bite me, I expect. I spent most of the morning and a good chunk of the afternoon lolling in bed, napping and reading. (High point: in my quest for a light breakfast, I succumbed to backpacker cliché and discovered that my hotel makes the best banana pancakes I’ve yet found in SE Asia.) Whatever it was must have been bacterial, since some after-lunch antibiotics perked me up enough to go wander a bit through town.

One interesting thing about Cambodia (and Laos) is that US dollars are accepted, even preferred over the local currency. The whole country is like a giant dollar store – most of what you want to buy will cost you a buck. (Except an entry ticket to Angkor Wat, which’ll cost you twenty.) I walked through the craft market (ten postcards for a dollar, Kampot pepper for two), then over to Alley Street, the tourist area. If you read this blog last summer you know I can’t resist a good Dr. Fish foot spa, and for $2 for as long as you feel like staying I had to do it. Thanks to the evening’s downpour I ended up staying put for nearly two hours, and discovered the answer to a pressing question of backpackers everywhere – no, those fish never get bored of your feet. Two hours in and they were still going strong. Because I’m a pushover (and at that point a sitting target) I spent $7 on a painting by a kid with one leg and excellent English who said his favorite subject in school was math, and $1 on a bracelet from his sister, because how can you not? Dinner was bad Chinese food, then a stroll back to the hotel in the drizzle.

And this morning I packed up my stuff, had another plate of excellent pancakes (pineapple this time; they were out of bananas), and got on a plane to Laos. I’m currently sitting in a hut by the Nam Khan River, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes despite a heavy dose of DEET. But more on that later.

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